Saturday, October 17, 2009

Newspaper video cuts

There is a lot of discussion about the state of "newspaper video" on the Yahoo newspaper video group after the decision by the Las Vegas Sun to pull the plug on the innovative

The general meme is that those long features and other innovative projects that draw critical acclaim, but not necessarily lots of viewers, are falling by the wayside and that the TV staples of breaking news - fires, accidents, news conferences and the like -- are becoming the standard fare.

This is not surprising, but misguided, though Chuck Fadley at the Miami Herald says hard news and sports drive the paper's video traffic.

But if you are doing that, all you are doing is competing with every other outlet in the market - in short, you are back to commodity news. And if you thought it was tough making a buck in the commodity news market when your tools are primarily paper and pen, it's a whole lot tougher in video where the equipment costs thousands of dollars.

One person writes that his newspaper, which went into video "with a vengeance," has cut back to one stringer and that if anything breaks, there is no money to replace it.

Dirck Halstead writes that video ad rates "MUST come up." Michael Rosenblum responds that the rates aren't coming up, that the problem is in the ad departments and that we have to radically reshape how we sell online ads.

They're both right. While earlier Pew data, for instance, still showed the heaviest use of online video to be at upper income levels, the latest shows no difference among income or education groups. But various types of video are likely to draw different audiences, some more valuable than others (think golf on TV), and there's no reason to think that, if sold correctly and with data to back it up, some video might not command a premium.

But that means knowing how to sell it and having the data and tools. And Rosenblum is definitely right that the problem is in the front office more than the newsroom. As I've worked with news organizations -- and I've said this before -- their ad and business sides are essentially moribund when compared with most newsrooms. Unlike a newsroom, they are even more intimately tied to a business model, and I'm not sure how you extract yourself from that, both psychologically and sociologically.

I don't think we can downplay the amount of managerial fortitude it takes to make this kind of change. You are screwing with people's livelihoods and, in many respects, asking them to jump into the pit with no guarantee where the bottom is. The money at this point, such as it is, is still to be made in selling ink on paper, not pixels on screen. Yes, it will change, but human reaction to such things tends to be a lagging, not a leading, economic indicator.

This pullback in video is not particularly surprising for two reasons:
  • the general pattern of technology adoption
  • the way too many newsrooms appear have managed it

In general, adoption of new technologies, especially information technologies, has been on a steadily upward curve, with the slope becoming even steeper with newer technologies such as the VCR, microwave, cell phone and Internet. (The telephone and airplane seem to have a dip or plateau in the graphs in that article, but that would seem to be more an effect of World War II.) But the technology adoption curve really isn't necessarily continuous bell curve, as Rogers posited. Some project a gap between the early adopters and the early majority. (See also part three of that series.)

The case of online video, especially news-related video, is further complicated because it is, for lack of a better term, a "secondary technology." It relies on still-developing underlying technology. It's only relatively recently that high-speed Internet has been available in most areas (and one can debate what we call high speed vs. the rest of the world), but the cost in rural areas is problematic.

There is continued debate over effective streaming technologies, especially in the era of high definition, and the devices on which to play such video remain limited. This is unlike the VCR, another secondary technology, which was a quick and relatively easy add-on (jokes about programming them not withstanding) to a stable underlying technology.

And even though the Pew data show widespread use of online video, that number is based on whether the person has ever watched a video sharing site. When you look at regular use, however, the numbers drop sharply (89 percent of those 18-29 say they watch videos, but just 36 percent on a typical day).

Truly widespread adoption, the kind that leads to the monetization and ROI needed for sustainability for organizations like newsrooms, is unlikely until online video is widely ported to existing TVs or to some kind of mobile device that improves on the current small-screen experience.

Having said that, I still see or hear of too many cases in newsrooms where things like video are embarked on without a rigorous thought and management process. (Newsrooms are not alone - a marketing director told me recently her organization had hired a social media firm. Why, I asked. Because everyone tells us we need to do it, she said.) As a result, as the one Newspaper Video list correspondent noted, they jump in with a vengeance, only to be disappointed. This digital age requires a more rigorous way of evaluating and managing. Four key points:
  • At the outset you should ask "why?" Also "how" and "what": Why are we doing this. What do we hope to accomplish or learn? (In the case of online video, it might be to learn workflows, define audience, understand the technology). How will we define success and what will we do if we don't have success?
  • Monitor: Who will monitor comments? Workflows? Cost vs. benefit? Content? The online production system is different from the old rigid get-it-to-press model (not to mention the added dimension of interacting with your audience). Effective monitoring is critical.
  • Measurement: There's an old business saying - you can't manage what you can't measure. So how will you measure? What will you measure? (Are total views critical, for instance, or is it time on view? Demographics? Psychographics?)
  • Manage: Did we reach our goals? If not, why not? What should we do about it - kill it or adjust it? Or redefine the goals?
None of this need involve ROI. In fact, smart organizations realize that to grow and expand, everything can't be about ROI (in pure dollars and cents, unless you want to get into gritty cost-benefit analysis).

We don't need to be quite so down in the dumps about "newspaper" video. But we do need to understand that many organizations jumped out without the rigor needed to evaluate it. As a result, the pullback also is likely to be overstated. But, then, that just seems to be the nature of the business right now.

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At 10/17/09, 6:20 PM, Blogger Rosenblum said...

I think we have to now do to the revenue side what we have so successfully done to the content creation side- remake it in the mold of the web and new technologies. We've got 21st century content pumping out all over the place and a 1950s advertising sales structure in place.

At 10/17/09, 6:41 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Could not agree more, but because of the nature of the beast -- being so intertwined to an economic structure dependent on the paper -- the job will be two or three times as hard as the newsroom. For one thing, publishers, for all their talk about the newsroom, often have their roots deep in the ad side, and deep roots mean it's harder to uproot out-of-date practices and thinking.

For instance, just for starters, how many morning news meetings have an ad rep sitting in to say, hey, if this is going to be on the Web today, maybe we can do a quick sell to an existing client or try to reach out to a new one.

Ex.: Paper I was working with this summer started doing that. One day reporter's doing a feature on photo touchup session at local museum. Ad dept. sells ad on same page to photo studio. That's $40 or $50 that wouldn't be in the till otherwise.

It's a very small thing, I admit, but it gets to changing the mindset. How many sales depts are flexible enough for that kind of quick sell? And now that I've left that operation, I hear that the ad dept. is showing up less and less in the meetings. Sigh.

At 10/18/09, 12:17 PM, Blogger Howard Owens said...

I've come to the conclusion that video does not drive audience growth. It helps add more interest to your site and will help some people stick around, but only very few videos get substantial views.

The Web is a text-based medium primarily, and I don't see that changing. Users are scanners and nibblers, and text is more conducive those habits. And text still has an advantage on longer stories than video for depth of coverage.

You call it commodity news, but the Web is primarily a breaking news medium.

Breaking news video is exceptionally important to building and retaining audience.

The primary goal of news organization doing Web news should be audience growth, and any strategy that works in that regard should be employed, and those that don't, jettisoned.

Without audience, there is nothing to sell.

Long-form video, feature video is an example of a news gathering effort that is time consuming and expensive and does nothing to grow audience.

There is no ROI either from a revenue stand point, nor audience growth standpoint. It's not worth doing.

At 10/20/09, 10:08 AM, Blogger Tom said...

To Howard's point, I think part of the problem is that long-form newspaper video is aimed at the wrong platform. Other modes of distribution are better suited to it: podcasts, smart phones, set-top boxes, cable etc. and newspapers should be viewing it as R & D to develop a "voice" that flows into other devices that are more classically "lean-back" media consumption experiences. It certainly maps to newspaper traditions of creating long-form explanatory and narrative journalism.

In addition to breaking news video, my experience at, suggested that audiences also valued seeing short "actualities" of places, events, and situations that couldn't ordinarily be accessed by the public. Particularly if it involved strong action and natural dialogue, or unusual aesthetic perspective that differed from how one would view a scene with the naked eye.

At 10/27/09, 3:01 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


I don't disagree with you and know how you feel about getting lots of video. My point about commodity video, however, is that if everyone is shooting the same fire or same news conference, what's the point? I suppose you can argue, well, if everyone's doing it ...
But that's the same argument that has us sending 2,000 reporters to the Super Bowl, a tragic waste of resources.

So yes, do those videos. Just try to do something others aren't.


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